Monday, May 10, 2010

Ordinary Hero Philip McCrory

Things are getting hairy in the Gulf of Mexico:
Hairdressers, pet groomers and farmers worldwide are collecting hair and fur to help mop up the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The hair, stuffed into nylon tights, helps booms soak up thick oil spewing from the blown-out well off Louisiana.

About 370,000 salons are taking part, said the charity organising the massive "hair lift". Matter of Trust is largely co-ordinating its efforts via Facebook.

Some 450,000lbs (204,000kg) of hair and fur is said to being arriving each day.

Interestingly, I just read about this last month in the wonderful book Natural Capitalism: Creating The Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken & Amory Lovins. They wrote:

Nature’s design lessons can often be turned to an unexpected purpose. Watching a TV report on sea otters soaked by the 1989 ExxonValdez oil spill, Alabama hairdresser Philip McCrory noticed that otter fur soaked up oil extremely well. This was a good trait for keeping the otter dry in clean water, but for the same reason, fatal when the otter had to swim through oil. Could the characteristic be exploited to help pull oil out of the water? Could comparably oil-prone human hair do the same thing? McCrory took hair swept from his salon floor, stuffed it into a pair of tights to make a dummy otter, and threw it into a baby pool filled with water and a gallon of motor oil. In two minutes, he reported, “the water was crystal clear.” Salon clients who worked for NASA put him in touch with an expert there who ran a larger-scale test. It found that “1.4 million pounds of hair contained in mesh pillows could have soaked up the entire Exxon Valdez oil spill in a week,” saving much of the $2 billion Exxon spent to capture only 12 percent of the 11 million gallons spilled.

I love this on so many levels. I love how it shows that old fashioned American ingenuity we always brag about. I love that it was an Alabama hairdresser who thought this up and now, as oil washes ashore in Alabama, Mr. McCrory can see his invention put to use to protect his own state’s beaches.

I love that it shows how wonderful natural systems are, how we are better off when we mirror our technology to what nature has created, instead of trying to bend nature to human creations.

I love that it shows how much ordinary citizens care about this planet: enough to inspire someone to get off the sofa, test an idea, and then take that extra step to bring it NASA’s attention.

Because, perhaps the most chilling thing I read in Natural Capitalism was this:

The main obstacles are no longer technical or economic but cultural.

This is very sad. It means we have the way, but not the will. But the actions of ordinary citizens gives me hope. Maybe, as more Philip McCrories step up, people in Washington will start paying attention, too.